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The For the People Act: Separating Fact from Fiction

There’s a lot of disinformation and misinformation swirling around the landmark legislation. We set the record straight.

Published: May 13, 2021

Our demo­cracy urgently needs repair.

The “Big Lie” of wide­spread voter fraud in the 2020 elec­tion that motiv­ated a viol­ent insur­rec­tion at the Capitol has sparked an unpre­ced­en­ted wave of voter suppres­sion laws in the states. The upcom­ing redis­trict­ing cycle threatens to once again be marred by extreme partisan gerry­man­der­ing that will distort congres­sional elec­tions for a decade. And our broken campaign finance system contin­ues to foster a wide­spread sense from Amer­ic­ans across the polit­ical spec­trum that their voices simply do not count relat­ive to big donors and entrenched interests.

These chal­lenges are, among other things, intim­ately connec­ted to our nation’s history of racial injustice, from persist­ent efforts to keep voters of color away from the ballot box, to gerry­man­der­ing that has repeatedly sought to dilute their polit­ical power, to the racial wealth gap that is a persist­ent barrier to many candid­ates of color rais­ing enough funds to compete.

But today we also have a historic oppor­tun­ity to strengthen Amer­ican demo­cracy.

The For the People Act, passed as H.R. 1 in the House and pending as S. 1 in the Senate, would curb voter suppres­sion and make it easier for all Amer­ic­ans to register to vote and cast a ballot. It would outlaw partisan gerry­man­der­ing of congres­sional districts. And it would over­haul our campaign finance laws to amplify the voices of ordin­ary Amer­ic­ans, combat corrup­tion, and make federal campaign spend­ing more trans­par­ent. Together with the John Lewis Voting Rights Advance­ment Act, which would restore the full protec­tions of the land­mark Voting Rights Act of 1965 hobbled by the Supreme Court, the For the People Act would move us meas­ur­ably closer to real­iz­ing the prom­ise of demo­cracy for all.

Poll after poll has shown over­whelm­ing public support for this legis­la­tion. One recent survey found 67 percent of Amer­ic­ans in favor, includ­ing 56 percent of Repub­lic­ans and 68 percent of inde­pend­ents.

Despite the bill’s popular­ity, some comment­at­ors have sugges­ted that it should be broken up because its indi­vidual pieces would be easier to pass than the whole. But the bill’s compre­hens­ive approach is actu­ally its greatest strength. Its ambi­tious scope has attrac­ted a vast and unpre­ced­en­ted coali­tion of civil rights activ­ists, labor organ­izers, faith-based organ­iz­a­tions, envir­on­mental groups, consumer advoc­ates, voting rights experts, and many others.

Without effect­ive argu­ments against the For the People Act, some of its oppon­ents have instead relied on misin­form­a­tion. At a May 11 Senate hear­ing, for instance, oppon­ents charged that it would allow Demo­crats to “take over our demo­cracy,” permit “millions of people to vote illeg­ally,” and funnel taxpayer money to politi­cians.

These and similar attacks are simply wrong. Here are some of the most common miscon­cep­tions about the For the People Act circu­lat­ing today.

FICTION: The For the People Act is a partisan power grab

Lead­ing oppon­ents of the For the People Act have charged that it is a Demo­cratic power grab, accus­ing the Demo­crats of seek­ing to “win elec­tions in perpetu­ity” by rigging the system in their favor. This asser­tion is utterly base­less.

The key reforms in the For the People Act are modelled off success­ful prac­tices that have been imple­men­ted in red, blue, and purple states. Forty-three states have some form of early voting and 34 states allow no excuse vote by mail, which the bill would require for all federal elec­tions. The bill also requires states to adopt Auto­matic Voter Regis­tra­tion (AVR) — where eligible voters are registered when they provide their inform­a­tion to a govern­ment agency like the depart­ment of motor vehicles. AVR has been passed in 19 states of all polit­ical hues, includ­ing by a unan­im­ous vote in the Illinois Legis­lature and two-thirds of voters in a Michigan ballot refer­en­dum. Redis­trict­ing reforms like those in the For the People Act have been adop­ted by voters in red and purple states like Color­ado, Michigan, Ohio, and Utah, often by over­whelm­ing margins. Repub­lican states like Alaska and Montana have some of the nation’s strongest campaign finance rules.

It is simply not true that the For the People Act gives an elect­oral advant­age to the Demo­cratic Party. These meas­ures bene­fit all Amer­ic­ans, regard­less of party, espe­cially over the long term. For instance, Repub­lican voters have long taken advant­age of both early voting and vote by mail at the same rate as Demo­crats. Redis­trict­ing reforms have helped Repub­lic­ans. In Cali­for­nia, for instance, using map-draw­ing criteria similar to those in the For the People Act, the nonpar­tisan redis­trict­ing commis­sion drew a congres­sional map highly respons­ive to changes in voter senti­ment. The result: Repub­lic­ans won back four of the seven House seats they lost in the 2018 Demo­cratic wave.

Simil­arly, the campaign finance reforms in the bill would have a bipar­tisan impact. In fact, Demo­crats in the last elec­tion cycle benefited more than Repub­lic­ans from the sort of secret campaign spend­ing the For the People Act elim­in­ates. And far from a “partisan takeover” of the dysfunc­tional Federal Elec­tion Commis­sion, as crit­ics have charged, the For the People Act creates many new stat­utory safe­guards to prevent the agency from being weapon­ized by either party.

The bottom line is that the For the People Act would empower the Amer­ican people as whole — which helps to explain why it enjoys such wide­spread, bipar­tisan support.

FICTION: The For the People Act is a federal takeover of elec­tions

Crit­ics have alleged that the For the People Act would result in a “federal takeover” of elec­tions. This is false.

Under the For the People Act, state and local govern­ments would continue to admin­is­ter all elec­tions, just as they do now, and they would continue to set policies for their juris­dic­tions beyond what is required by federal law. The For the People Act merely sets baseline stand­ards for voting access in federal contests, as Congress has done many times before.

Even though that’s not what this bill does, the Consti­tu­tion gives Congress the power to completely supplant states in setting the rules for federal elec­tions. As the late Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in a 2013 Supreme Court decision, the Consti­tu­tion author­izes Congress to “provide a complete code for congres­sional elec­tions” if it desires. The For the People Act stops well short of doing so; it would merely ensure that every Amer­ican has a reas­on­able oppor­tun­ity to vote no matter where they live.

FICTION: The For the People Act will allow noncit­izens and people under 18 to vote

Some oppon­ents of the bill have falsely claimed that the For the People Act would allow noncit­izens or those under the age of 18 to vote in Amer­ican elec­tions. It would do no such thing.

The bill would modern­ize voter regis­tra­tion and take other steps to expand access to the ballot, but it would do noth­ing to weaken exist­ing laws that prohibit noncit­izens from voting. Under its auto­matic voter regis­tra­tion provi­sions, govern­ment agen­cies would only register people known to be citizens or those who affirm their citizen­ship, as under current law and prac­tice. Auto­matic voter regis­tra­tion and other changes to modern­ize voter regis­tra­tion, like online and Elec­tion-Day regis­tra­tion, are already the law in dozens of states, and they have not led to an increase in noncit­izen regis­tra­tion or voting.

The charge that the For the People Act would allow those under 18 to vote is equally base­less. It would allow citizens aged 16 and 17 to preregister to vote, as is currently done in more than a dozen states, but they would not be allowed to cast a ballot until they turn 18.

FICTION: The For the People Act will open the door to “voter fraud”

Another attack is that enact­ing the For the People Act will some­how result in wide­spread “voter fraud.” But there is no cred­ible basis for this predic­tion.

Voter fraud is vanish­ingly rare, and efforts to show other­wise have been soundly debunked. Key reforms in the For the People Act, like modern­iz­ing voter regis­tra­tion and expand­ing access to early voting and vote by mail, would do noth­ing to change this basic real­ity. Already, tens of millions of Amer­ic­ans vote in states with similar rules, and there is no evid­ence of any uptick in fraud.

If anything, such changes often make our elec­tions more secure. Auto­matic voter regis­tra­tion, for example, has been shown to increase the accur­acy of the voter rolls. The For the People Act also includes other much needed elec­tion secur­ity provi­sions, like requir­ing the use of voter-veri­fied paper ballots and offer­ing more fund­ing for post-elec­tion audits to confirm results.

Crit­ics of the For the People Act have often zeroed in on its provi­sions expand­ing access to mail voting, repeat­ing false alleg­a­tions of wide­spread fraud in the 2020 vote, in which unpre­ced­en­ted numbers voted by mail and many burden­some require­ments (like witness signa­ture and ballot notar­iz­a­tion) were relaxed due to the pandemic. False alleg­a­tions of fraud in 2020 are the same lies that fueled the Janu­ary 6 insur­rec­tion.

In real­ity, the evid­ence shows there is no wide­spread fraud in connec­tion with mail voting. States have been voting by mail for decades. Oregon, a pion­eer in this area, has sent out approx­im­ately 100 million mail ballots since 2000 and has docu­mented only about a dozen repor­ted cases of fraud — that is 0.0001 percent of all votes cast. An exhaust­ive analysis by invest­ig­at­ive journ­al­ists of all known vote fraud cases between 2000 and 2012 found exactly 491 cases of mail voter fraud.

As one noted scholar poin­ted out, “liter­ally billions of votes” were cast during that period. As with in-person voting, it is more likely for an Amer­ican to be struck by light­ning than commit mail voter fraud. Like­wise, hundreds of offi­cials — includ­ing scores of Repub­lic­ans ranging from high-level appointees at the Depart­ments of Justice and Home­land Secur­ity, to state and local elec­tion offi­cials, to multiple federal judges nomin­ated by Repub­lican pres­id­ents — have confirmed that there was no wide­spread fraud in 2020.

In making mail voting more access­ible, the For the People Act would not increase the risk of fraud. However, it would help to ensure that all eligible Amer­ic­ans, includ­ing voters who are disabled or live in rural areas without reli­able access to trans­port­a­tion, have the oppor­tun­ity to easily and securely cast a ballot.

FICTION: The For the People Act will funnel taxpayer money to politi­cians and foment polit­ical extrem­ism

Oppon­ents of the For the People Act have claimed that the bill’s campaign finance reforms will divert taxpayer money to politi­cians and encour­age polit­ical extrem­ism. These asser­tions are mistaken.

The For the People Act would create a volun­tary small donor match­ing system for federal elec­tions, under which small contri­bu­tions to parti­cip­at­ing candid­ates would be matched at a six-to-one ratio. Small donor match­ing, which has been used in pres­id­en­tial primar­ies and at the state and local level for decades, gives candid­ates a way to fundraise without rely­ing primar­ily on dona­tions from the very wealth­i­est contrib­ut­ors and special interests.

It is the best anti­dote to the inequit­ies of the current system, in which $1 out of every $13 contrib­uted over the last six elec­tion cycles has come from just a dozen megadonors and their spouses. Small donor match­ing bene­fits the vast major­ity of candid­ates, but it is espe­cially useful for candid­ates of color, partic­u­larly women, who thanks to historic discrim­in­a­tion often cannot access the same wealthy networks as their white coun­ter­parts.

This program does not use any taxpayer money. It is entirely funded by a surcharge to be assessed primar­ily on penal­ties from corpor­ate lawbreak­ers. The bill expressly forbids any use of taxpayer funds.

A few academic comment­at­ors have worried that empower­ing small donors will result in more elec­ted offi­cials with ideo­lo­gic­ally extreme views. But over­all, small donors are no more ideo­lo­gic­ally extreme than the large donors who currently bank­roll our campaigns. Small donors do support some ideo­lo­gic­ally extreme candid­ates (so do large donors), but many moder­ate and estab­lish­ment politi­cians are also highly success­ful small dollar fundraisers.

Moreover, public finan­cing programs that reward small donor fundrais­ing tend to broaden the range of people who give to campaigns, includ­ing incentiv­iz­ing more of a candid­ate’s own constitu­ents to give. In other words, such systems tend to make the pool of donors look more like the elect­or­ate over­all rather than empower­ing ideo­lo­gical extreme segments.

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